Because of a USA Today contest, and because Chuba Hubbard is on pace for historic statistics and might suddenly be a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate, the greatness of Barry Sanders once again is remembered.
To commemorate the 150th season of college football, USA Today created a bracket populated by some of the more accomplished players of all time. In online voting that ended last week, Sanders was chosen the greatest player ever.
As they were dynamic Cowboys who now are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sanders and former teammate Thurman Thomas are the Nos. 1 and 2 running backs, respectively, in Oklahoma State history.
Is it possible that a Canadian kid — Hubbard — could be regarded as the No. 3 back on the OSU pyramid? Or should be regarded as such?
Or actually has become that No. 3 guy?
If you combine three key attributes — productivity, durability and artistry — then Hubbard, in my mind, does command that No. 3 distinction. At the very least, I’d have Hubbard and Terry Miller share third place.
Having smoked the TCU defense for 223 yards last week, Hubbard has been Oklahoma State’s starting running back for 12 games — the equivalent of one regular season. After Justice Hill was injured last season, the Sherwood Park, Alberta, native was promoted to the starting lineup against West Virginia, TCU and Missouri.
Combining those three starts with the nine he has made this season, Hubbard’s 12-game rushing numbers are 1,938 yards, 19 touchdowns and 6.6 yards per carry.
With four games remaining on the 2019 schedule, Hubbard leads the nation with 1,604 yards. On a single-season basis, he already has become the most prolific of all Mike Gundy-coached running backs. In 2008, Kendall Hunter ran for 1,555 yards in 13 games.
As the 2019 Cowboys are guaranteed a 13th game in a bowl, Hubbard is on pace for what would be a Big 12-record 2,317 yards. It would be the fifth-best total in major-college football history — and still more than 500 yards below Sanders’ 1988 total.
The yardage and touchdowns are impressive, but Hubbard’s durability has been a surprise. He is on pace for 331 carries. No other Gundy-coached running back had more than 274 carries (Joseph Randle in 2012).
Only four OSU backs ever had as many as 300 carries in a season: Sanders, Thomas, Ernest Anderson and Miller.
Hubbard was a national track champion in Canada, so everyone knew he could run. He averaged 15 yards per attempt in Canadian high school football, which would suggest he wasn’t hit very often. Now, he has proven to have uncommon durability.
As for artistry, Hubbard combines highest-level speed with a smooth style. His big plays don’t develop. They erupt. He has an uncanny ability to shoot through a tight window and then he needs no more than two strides to hit full speed.
If a defender has an angle, he’s got a chance. If the defender and Hubbard are sprinting on the same line, however, Hubbard wins that race every time.
Sanders, Thomas and now Hubbard are among the 10 Cowboys who had a single-season total of at least 1,400 rushing yards. The others are Anderson, Gerald Hudson, Hunter, David Thompson, Vernand Morency, Randle and Hill.
For the 1945 Oklahoma A&M Aggies, Bob Fenimore ran for a nine-game total of 1,048 yards (7.4 per carry).
Former OSU coach Pat Jones disagrees with my opinion that Hubbard is the No. 3 OSU running back. Jones’ top four are Sanders (1986-88), Thomas (1984-87), Miller (1974-77) and Fenimore (1943-46).
Jones coached Sanders and Thomas at OSU. As an Arkansas assistant, Jones coached against Miller. Jones says Miller “had more wiggle” than Hubbard.
Based on information Jones gleaned from informed figures like Neill Armstrong (who played with Fenimore and later flourished as a pro football coach) and Tulsa World sports-writing legend Bill Connors, Jones says Fenimore absolutely should be considered a top-four back at OSU.
“I would draw a line after Sanders, Thomas, Terry Miller and Bob Fenimore,” Jones said, “and then put Hubbard with that next level of guys.”
In the USA Today competition, Sanders was matched with Baylor linebacker Mike Singletary, Nebraska center Dave Rimington, Oklahoma tight end Keith Jackson, Auburn running back Bo Jackson and Georgia running back Herschel Walker.
Sanders prevailed decidedly against each of those famous names. In each matchup, USA Today reports, Sanders he got at least 72% of the vote.
In the championship round, it was Sanders vs. Pittsburgh running back Tony Dorsett. Sanders received 85% of the vote.
“It’s very significant, when you think about the context,” Jones said. “(Wednesday was) the 150th anniversary of the first game played in college football, and Sanders is voted the best player ever. It’s stunning. It’s humbling.”
Has anyone else ever maximized an opportunity as Sanders did in 1988?
In his only season as OSU’s full-time starting tailback, Sanders responded with a 12-game, national-record-shattering total of 2,850 yards. He scored 44 touchdowns and won the Heisman Trophy.
“And,” Jones likes to say, “he did it on a diet of Fritos and Little Debbie cakes.”
Jones and others argue that the today’s defenses aren’t as ferocious as those encountered by Miller, Thomas and Sanders.
While Jones believes Fenimore would have thrived during any decade of college football, I believe the same about Hubbard because of his combination of speed and toughness.
Running backs still get hit and still get hurt, and yet Hubbard remains relentlessly available. Before he popped TCU for 223 yards, he ran for 296 against Kansas State, for 256 at the University of Tulsa and for 221 at Oregon State.
Durability, productivity, speed and artistry. That’s what I see from Hubbard, and why I have him at No. 3 in OSU’s all-time backfield ranking.
I’ll feel even better about it after he breaks the tape on a 2,000-yard, 300-carry season.